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Personalized Relationships Are the Key to College Fundraising

We all know that the price of a four-year college degree has risen to precipitous heights. In the 21st century, the average cost of college has doubled, increasing by a whopping $7,142 between the 2009/10 and 2019/20 school years alone, according to Currently, the total average cost of attendance (tuition, books, other fees) for a 4-year state college or university is $25,487 for in-state students and $43,161 for out-of-state students; it’s a massive $53,217 for non-profit private institutions.

Despite these enormous price hikes, student tuitions don’t come close to covering most colleges’ actual operating expenses.

In fact, tuition only covers about 50 to 62 percent of the cost of operating the typical school of higher education, according to a 2016 study by the American Institutes for Research’s Delta Cost Project. For state-run colleges and universities, the rest of the money comes principally from government subsidies. But private institutions don’t have that luxury; they must rely on endowments and/or private fundraising to meet their budgetary goals.

For private colleges and universities, fundraising is such a priority that most have entire departments dedicated solely to this activity. Employing experienced professionals and student volunteers, they regularly reach out to corporations, educational foundations, and alumni for the dollars they desperately need to keep their lights on and doors open. 

With limited resources, fundraisers must be strategic in who they contact and how they couch their appeals. This first part of this calculus is fairly simple: past donors are always likelier to give again than are people who have never given before. The second element is a bit trickier since appeals are most successful when customized to the interests and passions of the individual donor. And knowing what kind of message works best with any particular prospect can be difficult.

This is where DonorSearch comes in. Our advanced fundraising application uses sophisticated artificial intelligence to identify high-propensity donors to fashion appeals explicitly targeted to their individual interests. For a small private college, this kind of resource can prove invaluable.

Defiance College

Let’s consider just such an institution. Defiance College in Defiance, Ohio, situated between the cities of Toledo to the east and Ft. Wayne, Indiana to the west, is a small liberal arts college with a total student population of about 500. Founded in 1850 as the Defiance Female Seminary and affiliated with the United Church of Christ, the campus comprises 18 buildings. It offers bachelor’s degrees in Arts, Science, and Nursing as well as master’s programs in Education and Business Administration.

“I love the liberal arts,” said Brittanie E. Kuhr, Defiance’s Executive Director of Institutional Advancement, who is responsible for managing the college’s fundraising activities. “I’m a product of the liberal arts. I believe now more than ever that the liberal arts are important. “

Kuhr explained that, before finding DonorSearch, she and her team struggled to understand the personalities of the donors to whom they were trying to appeal. “Our picture for an institutional perspective was so limited; we needed to zoom out,” she explained. “We saw this piece of our donors and their relationship with the college, but we didn’t have the whole picture. We needed to take that step back.”

DonorSearch solved that problem, she said. “We’ve been able to use DonorSearch to do sort of a deeper dive and put together kind of a one-page profile of each donor. Before you go out to lunch with somebody, it lays out everything you’d want to know so can tailor the conversation appropriately to them. Undoubtedly, it has made our lives easier.”

Skidmore College

Although nearly five times the size of Defiance College, Skidmore College in Sarasota Springs, New York, faces the same fundraising challenges as its smaller brethren, and has found DonorSearch to be equally effective in fashioning personalized donor appeals. Situated on 1,000 acres, Skidmore was founded in 1903 as the Young Women’s Industrial Club—later the Skidmore School of the Arts—and today offers 44 majors, the most popular being Business, English, Psychology, Political Science, Economics, Studio Art, Theater, Biology, and Environmental Studies.

“At Skidmore College, we’re known for health, history, and horses,” quipped Emily Marcason-Tolmie, Director of Prospect Management, Research, and Analytics. She explained that she began using DonorSearch in the midst of a multi-year fundraising push. 

“We were toward the end of a seven-year-old campaign,” she said. “Like a lot of people who go through long campaigns, we needed a little refresh in trying to battle some donor fatigue. We did a couple DonorSearch wealth screening demos, and when I saw the results, I was sold. I think that last year, because we had DonorSearch, we were able to end up breaking our goal. I would highly recommend it to any shop that is looking to build pipelines and further dig into prospects.”

To find out more about how your college or university can reach out to past donors eager to hear your message for great results, please contact our team of experts to arrange a demo of DonorSearch today.

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